A Historical Perspective About the Heavyweight Boxing Champions and The Presidents of the United States
By Barry Lindenman
The heavyweight championship of the world: ideally, the most respected, most revered single athletic accomplishment; the ultimate sports achievement. The President of the United States: ideally, the most respected, most revered single personal achievement; the ultimate ambition. History has a way of remembering the reigns of heavyweight champions in the same way that Presidential administrations are remembered. Many parallels can be drawn between our past heavyweight champions and our past Presidents. When we recall our past heavyweight champions, we remember their reigns because of the particular events and circumstances which surrounded their unique rise to the top. The same can be said of our Presidents. Each administration is remembered because of the unique circumstances surrounding each of our President’s White House years. Arguments can always be made about who was a “good” President and who was a “bad President. The same discussion can be made for our heavyweight champions: Dempsey, Louis, Marciano and Ali, they were all “good” heavyweight champions. Sharkey, Spinks (Leon), Douglas, they were “bad” heavyweight champions. There is clearly an analogy that can be drawn between the heavyweight champion of the world and the President of the United States and how history chooses to remember them.
Let’s start at the beginning. George Washington is remembered in the same context as is John L. Sullivan, generally recognized as the first heavyweight champion of the modern gloved era. Because of their respective distinctions as being “the first,” they had no predecessors whom history could compare them with. Therefore, they set the standard by which all of their successors would be measured against. In addition, being remembered as the first President and the first heavyweight champion of the world, guarantees George Washington and John L. Sullivan an honor and a firm place in history that can never be taken away from them.
One of our more obscure Presidents, Grover Cleveland, is remembered for one accomplishment that makes him stand out from the rest. He is the only man ever to be elected President, then lose the election, and then be elected again. The first (and only) President to ever “regain the title.” For the same reason, Floyd Patterson will forever be remembered as the first man ever to regain the heavyweight championship. Historians of pugilism and American history will forever link these two gentlemen for their rare feats.
There is an historical link between President Gerald Ford and former heavyweight champion Ken Norton. Ford is the only man in history to become President without ever having won an election for either President or Vice-President. He ascended to the Vice-Presidency by being appointed to the position and replacing Spiro Agnew, who resigned in disgrace in 1973. Less than a year later, Ford became President when Richard Nixon resigned in August 1974 because of the Watergate scandal. As is often said of Ken Norton, Ford was therefore a “paper President.” Similarly, Norton was proclaimed heavyweight champ in 1978 without having won the title in the ring. Despite their greatness and other accomplishments, Ford and Norton will forever go down in history as the men who were awarded their titles, rather than win them.
Speaking of Richard Nixon, who would ever think that he and Mike Tyson would be thought of in the same way? Like them or hate them, worship them or despise them, Nixon and Tyson are best remembered not for their accomplishments, but more for their falls from grace. The Nixon administration, despite its place in history for opening the economic trade doors to both China and the Soviet Union, and introducing the word “détente” into the vocabulary of world politics, will forever be overshadowed by the shame and disgrace of the Watergate scandal. Likewise, without ignoring all of “Iron Mike’s” achievements (youngest heavyweight champ ever, unifying the title and devastating punching power), he will always be linked infamously with his own version of Watergate, “Desiree Gate.” His conviction of the rape of Desiree Washington has tarnished his image as one of the greatest champions of all time just like the “black eye” that Watergate was to Richard Nixon.
The memories of FDR and Joe Louis are equally similar. Not just because Roosevelt and Louis hold the distinction of being President and heavyweight champion respectively longer than anyone else. History’s memories of them are alike because they both represented symbols of America and what our country stands for during a time when patriotism was the norm. Coming out of the Great Depression and into World War II, FDR and Joe Louis were both men whom the entire country rallied around and looked to for leadership. Just as FDR led the U.S. against the armies of Germany’s Adolph Hitler, the nation looked to Louis’s fight against Germany’s Max Schmeling as a symbolic microcosm of how the U.S. would be victorious over Germany. FDR and Joe Louis, two great men during a great moment in history.
When it comes to style and charisma, John F. Kennedy and Muhammad Ali have no equals. Symbolic of the youth and optimism of the rebellious 1960’s, these men came along at the right time as leaders of a new generation. Although Kennedy’s term was cut short by an assassin’s bullet in 1963, and Ali’s first reign as heavyweight champion was cut short by the U.S. government, the overwhelming popularity of these two men lives on today. Although almost 50 years has passed since JFK was killed and Ali (then known as Cassius Clay) first won the heavyweight championship of the world, the lasting images of these great men are forever in the minds of people all over the world. Of all the Presidents and heavyweight champions, Kennedy and Ali still reign as two of the most popular and recognizable men that the world has ever know.
A case can also be made for a historical comparison between Harry S. Truman and of all people, Buster Douglas. When it comes to upsets, history places these two at the top of the list. How many times have we seen that iconic image of a victorious Truman holding up the newspaper with the headline, “Dewey Defeats Truman?” I wonder how many newspapers there were back in 1990 that already preprinted headlines proclaiming a Tyson victory over the overwhelming underdog James “Buster” Douglas. The foregone conclusions of a Dewey victory over Truman and a Tyson victory over Douglas were shattered and will forever be remembered as two of the greatest upsets of all time. As President, Truman authorized the use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan in 1945 and forty five years later, Buster Douglas claimed the heavyweight championship of the world by dropping the bomb on Mike Tyson in Tokyo, Japan.
Finally, we come to our current President. Can there be any doubt that history will remember Barack Obama in the same way that history recalls Jack Johnson? In addition to being the first Black President and the first Black heavyweight champion, their respective victories have had the unfortunate effect of polarizing the country in ways not seen for decades. In the case of Johnson’s victory over Tommy Burns in 1908, riots actually broke out throughout the country. The racial animosity was so widespread at the time that the term “Great White Hope” was first coined by author Jack London in an effort to identify anyone (any Caucasian that is) who would fight and defeat Johnson. Similarly, Obama’s election in 2008 has resulted in the emergence of the predominantly white “Tea Party” movement as an effort to return the country to an era of strict conservatism, smaller government and strict adherence to the original Constitution. Johnson was hounded throughout his reign as heavyweight champion and was eventually convicted of violating the Mann Act in 1913. Ironically, it his Barack Obama’s opponent in the 2008 Presidential campaign, Senator John McCain, who is leading a campaign for the President to issue a posthumous pardon for Johnson.
Without a doubt, cases can be made for historical comparisons between other U.S. Presidents and other heavyweight champions. The message is clear however. There are similar characteristics in the historical perspectives of our Presidents and their administrations and our heavyweight champions and their title reigns. Only time will tell who will be elected President in 2012 and who the heavyweight champion is and more importantly, how they will be remembered.